Susan Glasser: I’m Susan Glasser, and welcome back to The Global POLITICO. Our guest again this week is Laurel Miller who has just completed her service as the acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s a big mouthful of a title, as the State Department is wont to create, the SRAP as it’s known. And I imagine we’ll refer to that in this conversation. But I’m really glad to be speaking with her this week. It’s a very timely conversation about just what is America’s policy towards Afghanistan these days.
The Trump administration has been undertaking a review of it. There are reports any day now we’ll see an increase of new troops being sent to the region. It’s almost an eerie echo of the very beginning of the Barack Obama administration. Laurel Miller, yesterday Donald Trump said—and it was almost one of those unintentionally revealing comments—“I want to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years.” So what’s the answer? Why have we been in Afghanistan for 17 years?
Laurel Miller: Thank you, Susan. I’m very happy to be here. You know, that’s a harder question to answer than you think it might be. And it’s a fair question to ask. It’s not unusual for any new administration to want to and need to pause and reflect on why we’re doing what we’re doing in an area of the world where we’ve been devoting so many resources — financial resources, human resources — as we have in Afghanistan. And, as I said, it’s not as easy a question to answer as you might think.
Why we went into Afghanistan at the end of 2001 is clear and is well known. Since that time, you have the accretion of one decision after another that takes you down a path, a path that’s led us today to a point where we still have one of our largest overseas commitments in the world of troops, of financial resources, of diplomats, of development personnel, and yet it’s a place that clearly the new administration is not keen to be actively engaged in. It has not been a topic of public conversation during the campaign and really since then, from the highest levels of our government.
I think one of the reasons we’re still in Afghanistan relates to why we went in in the first place, which is our concerns about terrorist groups that thrive in a region that does not have strong government control and our concern about the risk of groups that have transnational ambitions. It is not clear that the kinds of threats that emanate from Afghanistan or, perhaps better said, the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, are of the same caliber and degree of risk as they were to us in the past given the very significant degradation of Al Qaeda in that region and other associated terrorist groups.
Glasser: And yet here we are all these years later talking about more troops once again.
Miller: And yet here we are.
Glasser: You yourself said recently—and, you know, it seems like it’s almost not a controversial statement—that “the status quo is clearly not working.”
Glasser: But Donald Trump clearly—I don’t think I had ever heard him use the word “Afghanistan” actually until these comments, at least in public the other day. You’re right that he never mentioned it on the campaign trail. He had a lot of opinions about Iraq; he had a lot of opinions about the broader Middle East in the course of the campaign. But one of the things he’s been very clear on is a wariness of increased military activity. And yet behind the scenes you must have seen he had brought in a bunch of very experienced, savvy generals to run this policy review.
He’s got Jim Mattis at the Pentagon. He’s got General McMaster at the National Security Council. So tell us a little bit about the conversations that you observed and that you had with folks inside this new Trump administration. They’re very focused on not walking away from a fight, and yet you have the president who is very wary of committing more.
Miller: So I think one of the reasons why the policy review has gone on longer than originally planned, longer than expected, is because there aren’t very good options. To withdraw abruptly from Afghanistan would certainly risk the collapse of a government that is very deeply dependent on the American military backing and on American financial resources.
The U.S. and other allies around the world pay more than 90 percent of the cost of Afghan security forces and more than 60 percent of the total Afghan budget. If the United States withdrew from its financial commitments and its military engagement, it is highly likely that the government would suffer a very severe political crisis and be unable to sustain the fight that they are currently engaged in against Taliban insurgents. And so the concern about an abrupt military withdrawal is that you would create, once again, ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan that would enable terrorist groups that might threaten us to reemerge.
On the other hand, the Obama administration tried to turn the corner on the war in Afghanistan by surging military troops into the country. We had, at the peak, over 100,000 American troops plus about 40,000 NATO troops in the country. That didn’t work. It suppressed the insurgency, but it didn’t end the insurgency and win the war. I don’t think there is any serious analyst of the situation in Afghanistan who believes that the war is winnable. It’s possible to prevent the defeat of the Afghan government and prevent military victory by the Taliban, but this is not a war that’s going to be won, certainly not in any time horizon that’s relevant to political decision-making in Washington.
And so what does that leave you with? A sort of middle ground of do a bit more in order to buy some time, again, continuing to prevent the defeat of the Afghan government, prevent military victory by the insurgents, but not really get you anywhere. And that is a very unappealing set of choices. As brilliant and capable as some of the American military leaders may be, they don’t have any fancy new tricks up their sleeve that haven’t been tried in one fashion or another in Afghanistan.
Glasser: Right. So this policy review, what they’re sitting around discussing is not something that they’re going to unveil with some big bells and whistles and say, “Aha! Here is the key to unlocking this conflict”?
Miller: It’s always possible to rhetorically add some bells and whistles to whatever statement you make about what you’re going to do, but, as I said, there aren’t any fancy new tricks; there aren’t any new tools to be used to suddenly turn around the conflict in Afghanistan.
And, many people would acknowledge that, that what is proposed by those who are advocating the additional investment of military resources is that we have to be there for the long haul, that we have to support the Afghan government for the long haul and essentially continue in the same vein that we’ve been in.
Not a particularly appealing option for a new president who has been publicly indicating that he is more interested in withdrawing from these kinds of long-term commitments around the world than committing to them, than owning it. And so to say to this new president—not so new anymore, but this policy review has been going on for several months—to say that your only option is that now you need to be third president in a row to own this war, that’s a very politically difficult thing to do.
Glasser: So you weren’t surprised to hear him say, “I want to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years,” because, in fact, behind the scenes that’s clearly already been evident in the push and pull of this policy review?
Miller: Yes, and I think it makes it evident that he has not been persuaded by what has been said to him about the security risks for the United States that come from that region as compared to risks elsewhere around the world, I mean, very evident risks elsewhere around the world.
Glasser: It really is hard to see him wanting to expend any political capital. A, how much does he really have, anyways, of political capital at this point? But, B, hard to imagine that he wants to expend it on a place, a country whose name he has never even uttered in public. What does that do? What is the emerging dynamic between the State Department and the Pentagon in those conversations? We’re all trying to understand how foreign policy, how national security policy is made in the Trump administration? Publicly, they’ve said that Jim Mattis and H. R. McMaster are leading this review. What does that mean in a practical sense?
Miller: In the practical, technical sense, the way a policy review like this works is that the National Security Council staff organizes a series of meetings at different levels of government to work through identifying what U.S. interests are, identifying what the options are for how to address those interests. And then all the relevant agencies of the government—the State Department, Defense Department, intelligence agencies, Treasury Department, USAID—gather and give their input and try to come to some consensus.
I think it’s been publicly reported and actually reflects the reality that the Defense Department has a fairly outsized role in this process at this particular time, given that one of the main questions on the table is whether to apply more military resources to the problem. There has been an effort to try to get away from the Obama administration’s tendency to decide—to sort of boil down the whole question of strategy in Afghanistan to how many troops do we have in the country and to stop micromanaging the number of troops in the country.
But it’s pretty hard to get away from that fundamental question. It’s the one thing that the American public and Afghans and others can use to objectively measure the level of commitment. You can always just say, “We’re committed.” Diplomats can talk about commitment, but it’s hard to see that in concrete terms until you’re really talking about what are you putting on the table in terms of money and troops.
Glasser: A lot of folks have worried in a bigger picture sense that we’ve seen the long-term militarization of our foreign policy and that this current Afghanistan situation might be another reflection of that, but that it’s become particularly acute in the Trump administration because he has turned to so many career military officers in key positions, including positions they wouldn’t normally have, civilian positions. And then, of course, there’s the question of the State Department and what on earth is going on there. A lot of people are wondering when are they going to fill these jobs. Is your job even going to exist after you?
There was a spurt of reports when you left to return to RAND that they were shutting down the office. What can you tell us about that?
Miller: First of all, on the issue of militarization of foreign policy, I can say that with respect to Afghanistan, it’s been militarized for quite some time. Despite the differences in personnel at the leadership level, I would not say that the policy in Afghanistan is more militarized now than it was during the Obama administration. And it’s certainly less militarized now than it was at the peak of U.S. military commitment to Afghanistan. When you’ve got 100,000 American troops in the country and you weigh that against an embassy, it’s pretty clear where the balance of power lies in decision-making.
In the State Department my particular appointment expired at the end of June, the kind of appointment that I had. And my last remaining deputy had a long-planned exit from the State Department at the end of June. And so the State Department leadership took that opportunity to—if you want to call it an opportunity—took that moment, shall I say, to fold what was the SRAP office back into a more regularized bureaucratic structure and to put that responsibility back into one of the regular regional bureaus of the State Department.
Glasser: None of which, we should point out, actually have any appointed leaders at this point.
Miller: No, there is only an acting head of that bureau. It’s the South and Central Asia Bureau. Now, I mean, there is a certain logic to doing this, and it’s something that had been under discussion at the end of the Obama administration as well. And the particular logic is that it would be healthier for American foreign policy to have responsibility not just for Afghanistan and Pakistan but India as well all under the same person because the issues related to these three countries are related.
Glasser: I’m smiling because I remember when the office was created, and there was a huge turmoil.
Miller: Yes, and Richard Holbrooke wanted India too.
Glasser: Richard Holbrooke wanted India. We had a report in Foreign Policy Magazine, which I edited then, that he was lobbying to get India in it, and the Indians went crazy about that report.
Miller: Well, not just that. I mean, it would have been nothing left of that.
Glasser: Of the South Asia bureau, yes.
Miller: You know, you don’t have a bureau of just Central Asia and Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Glasser: But so there’s bureaucratic politics, but clearly there is bureaucratic politics and then there is Trump-administration politics.
Miller: Well, I think even though there is, as I said, a logic to this, it’s also certainly a reflection of policy priorities. I mean, this administration and the current Secretary of State has, as he has said publicly, been very intent on shrinking the State Department and as part of that eliminating as many of the special envoy offices as they can. Some of them are—
Glasser: Just this week it was reported they were going to get rid of the war crimes office.
Miller: The war crimes office, which I previously worked in, you know, earlier in the State Department
Glasser: They’re targeting you.
Miller: I won’t take it personally.
Glasser: You think that one should stay separate.
Miller: The war crimes office?
Miller: Again, there are always ways to attend to the policy issues if you are concerned about them, but I do think it’s certainly the case that these decisions are a reflection of policy priorities. I mean, every new administration comes in wanting to get rid of all the special offices created by the previous administration. Now, the war crimes office was 20 years old, and it survived through the whole Bush administration, so that one had a little more institutional longevity than others. But every administration also adds new offices too.
I mean, despite the very firm interest of the State Department in getting rid of special envoys, it was reported out of the meeting that President Trump had with President Putin at the G-20 that they were creating a new special envoy for Ukraine. So what that shows is that when there is a policy issue that for whatever reason is a priority for the new administration, the new Secretary of State, or some constituency in Congress—that’s sometimes how it occurs—you add a special envoy. So I would anticipate that Ukraine won’t be the last special envoy that we see during the Trump administration.
So, again, I think it’s unquestionable that the current administration prefers not to prioritize Afghanistan. It’s not been a subject of public discussion. The SRAP office was closed down. The Secretary of State has not yet traveled to the region. There has been no indication of the president going to the region, and that’s a choice that can be made. I think you then have to consider that that’s also a judgment about where are the risks for America around the world, where are security interests, where are the threats that we most have to attend to. Even though it’s not publicly stated, de facto this is a judgment about where the greater risks and interests lie around the world.
Glasser: Laurel, tell me about Rex Tillerson. Did you ever get the chance to talk with him about Afghanistan? What do you think his point of view is on this?
Miller: I did meet and speak with him on a few occasions. You know, I don’t think it would be right for me to characterize what his views are on Afghanistan per se. And, again, I mean, this wasn’t an area that he was closely focused on, and I think we can observe that from his lack of public attention to the issue. As the policy review unfolded it became clear that there was an interest from the State Department but not just from the State Department in ensuring that this was a review that considered issues in a more regional context, in a broader context that was not just about the fight in Afghanistan, but looked at all the relationships between the key countries in the region and looked at a longer-term time horizon of U.S. interests. And I think it’s fair to say that Secretary Tillerson shared that perspective of wanting to have a broader aperture for the review.
Glasser: Right. How does it fit into Russia, Iran, Pakistan—
Glasser: —India, exactly.
So we can get to that, because I do want to. But first I’ve got to just ask, on this policy review before we move on, what is up with this report that they are even considering or that the White House was trying to get as part of the review a hearing for those like Erik Prince who were lobbying for basically the creation of an outsourced, private, mercenary army that would somehow take over the U.S. representation there? Like, one, it seems like a pretty kooky idea, but, two, how is it possible that that was getting a hearing and that Jim Mattis was told to listen to these guys?
Miller: My interpretation is that that is a reflection of what I said earlier about the lack of good options.
Glasser: People looking out of the box.
Miller: When the menu doesn’t appeal to you, you want to order something off menu and ask the chef if he can cook something up special. And I think it’s also a reflection of probably some frustration in the White House that there weren’t a sufficient range of options being fully developed and presented to the president.
Now, those particular ideas are completely implausible. I mean, it’s just not practicable that you could do this, for a whole host of reasons. And the specific idea that there should be some kind of colonial-style viceroy for Afghanistan is practically implausible because the Afghans, of course, would get a vote on this.
It’s also a little surprising that for those who have had an antipathy towards the idea of nation-building that you would want to think about the idea of an occupation-style viceroy, which is nation-building on steroids. So I don’t myself think that there is any likelihood of those particular ideas taking root. But I think you should take seriously what it reflects about frustration with lack of options.
Glasser: Well, are there any other ideas like that floating around?
Miller: I have not heard any other outlier ideas like that.
Glasser: That’s a very polite, a very diplomatic way of putting it. So this office was created by Richard Holbrooke, a legendary figure, one you know well from your time in the Balkans as well. He saw it as a platform, and his goal was to launch peace negotiations. Well, here we are two full presidential terms and into the start of a next one later; there are no peace talks, at least no meaningful peace talks to speak of. And it’s not been a platform for that. So what was the job? You know, were you looking for ways to start peace negotiations? It seems like one of the most important roles was actually the peace negotiations inside the very dysfunctional Afghan government, where there is a president, Ashraf Ghani, and then a chief executive, the only one in the world, Abdullah Abdullah, the former head of the Northern Alliance.
Miller: So the peace negotiations — or the effort to try to launch peace negotiations — was definitely part of the job and an important part of the job. The other elements included, as you said, constantly trying to shore up Afghan political stability. And in late 2014 that was a particularly absorbing part of the job because of a crisis they had over flawed elections and the need to form a coalition government to get through that political crisis.
The SRAP office also had responsibility for policy related to our foreign assistance to Afghanistan and Pakistan as well, also had responsibility for managing our embassies in the countries. Kabul is still our largest embassy in the entire world. And when you count the total number of people at the embassy—
Glasser: So even though our physical plant is bigger in Iraq where Baghdad became famous as—
Miller: The total number of people in Afghanistan, including contractors and others, is more than Iraq.
Glasser: It’s amazing.
Miller: It is amazing, yes.
Glasser: When you think about the level of attention paid to this.
Miller: Yes. Now, a lot of them are security personnel, contractors, others, but still. I mean, the resources that the United States government spends, devotes to Afghanistan is still extraordinary and probably well beyond what most people, even maybe some people in government, fully appreciate.
Glasser: Yeah, I noticed that Chris Kolenda, in that very interesting conversation you had at the U.S. Institute of Peace recently, said that he put the number at $25 billion a year approximately.
Miller: It’s probably more than that all in when you count not just the military resources, the assistance resources, the operational cost of our embassy. It’s sometimes harder to exactly count these things than you would imagine, but it’s probably more than that.
Glasser: It’s an astonishing sum, yes. Okay, so peace talks.
Miller: So peace talks.
Glasser: We, in effect, created this government. Secretary John Kerry basically helped to negotiate this deal that has survived between Ghani and Abdullah.
Miller: Well, yes. The idea for how to form, how to shape this coalition government was actually an Afghan idea. But he did help to broker the agreement and the details of the agreement. But on peace negotiations, look, I mean, even though that was an area that Holbrooke was focused on, I would say the United States has never really put the kind of political muscle and diplomatic muscle behind the effort in a consistent way that would be necessary to launch peace talks. The effort just to try to get to the point of the start of peace talks has gone off the rails at multiple points in time. The vigor of the effort has been in fits and starts. There were, in the past, internal debates in the U.S. government about how much focus to put on the effort to launch peace talks. And so while it’s been an element of U.S. policy, it’s not one that has been attended to with the kind of constancy that’s needed if you’re going to make it succeed.
Now, there are lots of obstacles other than U.S. bureaucratics and political intentions to actually launching peace talks, but even among the things that the U.S. government can unilaterally control it hasn’t been as dominant an area of focus as I and others think it should be.
Glasser: Was there any moment in your tenure in that office when it seemed like, “Well, maybe we could do something”? Like, when was the last good chance to get something started?
Miller: You know, there have been moments of—I mean, you should never use the world optimism in the same sentence with Afghan peace process, but there have been moments when there was more progress in the behind-the-scenes effort than at other moments. And there have been some openings in terms of discussions with various partners in the region and others that we did, in fact, try to capitalize on. So I don’t want to give the impression that we were sitting on our hands and not focused on this.
I mean, I devoted a pretty considerable amount of my time and effort to this, as did my predecessor. Before that there was a considerable hiatus on this effort. But there is a difference between having a small group of diplomats who are toiling away in the State Department occasionally traveling around working on this with a small number of people in other countries and having a full-out diplomatic effort that clearly has the broad backing of all the U.S. government and at the highest levels.
Glasser: When we stared the conversation you described what basically amounts to a pretty precarious state of the current Afghan government, not just riven by internal discord and dysfunction, although that seems to be spiking once again. Not only is President Ghani besieged by lots of different rival groups; he’s not on speaking terms with his vice president and just refused to allow the vice president, General Dostum, to even land back inside the country amid allegations of abuses committed by Dostum and his forces. So how precarious is the situation of the government? I mean, could it fall even in the absence of the U.S. making a new military commitment?
Miller: It’s chronically precarious. There are moments of acute crisis that require very concerted American effort, in particular, to help them through. But even when it’s not in the headlines and you don’t see these acute crises, there is chronic weakness. Now, some of it is for reasons that simply can’t be controlled by the particular individuals who are currently in power. Afghanistan is still one of the poorest countries in the world; it’s a nascent democracy; it has weak institutions; it has limited human capital, limited financial resources. And, on top of that, it’s fighting an insurgency. And so long as the conflict is ongoing any government in Afghanistan is going to have a very hard time addressing those other structural, institutional weaknesses.
It’s also the case that President Ghani, who is a close ally of the United States and who has many positive attributes, is not known for his deft political skills. And so there is a certain amount of the instability that you see in Afghanistan that is a function of the political decisions of the current leadership and political choices that have exacerbated tensions among the individuals.
And President Karzai, for all of his issues with the United States and our relationship with him, was much more adept at that kind of political consensus building than President Ghani has been. Glasser: So the security situation seems pretty dire at this moment. There was just this enormous attack that killed many, many civilians in Kabul.
Miller: Yes, on May 31st.
Glasser: It’s led to the increased militarization of the capital itself. There is fighting with the Taliban. There is also Islamic State presence. Tell us about the security situation right now. I mean, how much of a crisis is it, or is it sort of the rhythm of the summer fighting season kicking into gear?
Miller: It’s not just the rhythm of the summer fighting season. And, in fact, over the last year especially and to some extend the year before, that fighting season calendar became less relevant as there was considerable fighting during the winter last year. The surge of American and NATO troops in the country suppressed the insurgency. It didn’t dismantle the insurgency; it didn’t eliminate it. And so as the number of troops drew down towards the end of the Obama administration and that pressure on the insurgency was relieved there was a resurgence because they weren’t eliminated.
And what we have seen over the last couple of years is we’ve seen that resurgence that was predicted and anticipated actually materialize. I think the erosion of the security situation has been somewhat faster even than was expected. Now, that doesn’t mean that the Taliban is about to march into Kabul. Their gains have been largely in rural areas, and they haven’t been able to take and hold provincial capitals, much less get—despite these sort of one-off attacks in Kabul, they haven’t been able to threaten Kabul in a sense of taking over Kabul. So they’re not on the verge of victory, but the security situation has been deteriorating. And I would expect that even if there is a modest increase in American troops, it will probably continue to deteriorate.
Glasser: People have long talked about the role of Pakistan in supporting the insurgency and various groups that the United States has labeled as terrorist groups. A, are they still doing that? And, B, what about Russia? I’ve heard increasing reports that they have been involved in some way in communicating with the Taliban and possibly giving them information.
Miller: On Russia, you know, the Russians themselves have acknowledged publicly contacts with the Taliban. They claim that those contacts are related to the issue of the Islamic State presence in Afghanistan. They’ve publicly denied that they have provided material support to the Taliban. It’s hard to say. I think there was observably over the last year, year and a half, an increase in Russian activism in Afghanistan and an observable increase in Russia trying to enhance the perception of its influence in Afghanistan, the perception of it having a stake in Afghanistan and being a relevant player that the United States and others needed to factor in. But whether they’ve actually been increasing material support to the Taliban is much harder to put your finger on, and I don’t think there’s any definitive evidence of that.
Glasser: But as the chief U.S. envoy you were seeing—the Russians were saying, “We’re here, and we want a seat at the table,” in a way that was more forceful than previously?
Miller: Yes, definitely. And of a piece with Russian foreign policy more broadly, not just in Afghanistan, but, you know, a way of saying, “You can’t ignore us. We’re relevant. We need to be part of whatever international discussions and decisions are happening related to Afghanistan.”
Glasser: So Islamic State does not get as much attention, of course, here in Afghanistan and its presence there as compared with in other parts of the world, but how much should we be paying attention to it? How significant are their forces there relative to the Taliban? I saw one of those little items that catches your eye recently that they had just fought and taken over the Tora Bora complex from Al Qaeda in eastern Afghanistan where, of course, Osama bin Laden had made his headquarters. So it seemed like one of those symbolic moments.
Miller: Yes. They’re much smaller than the Taliban. And they are in opposition to the Taliban, and the Taliban is in opposition to them. so you have to draw a clear distinction between the Taliban and the Islamic State presence in Afghanistan.
Glasser: So who are the Islamic State then if they are not drawing from the same group of sort of Pashtun jihadists that the Taliban are?
Miller: They are mostly drawing from former Pakistani Taliban, which is different than the Afghan Taliban, and some other terrorist groups in the region. There might be some disaffected Afghan Taliban individuals in the Islamic State too, but there’s no relationship between—and certainly no collaboration. I mean, there is outright opposition and fighting between the Afghan Taliban and the Islamic State.
You know, it’s not a presence at the moment that is existentially threatening to the Afghan government or to the United States, but it’s a worry. It is an official branch of the Islamic State. And it’s certainly something that the United States government has taken very seriously and been devoting considerable attention to trying to eliminate altogether. To actually completely eliminate them will be tough given—and you reference Tora Bora. I mean, given the particular geography of where they are, it’s very difficult terrain, a lot of caves, a lot of—it’s a rough area, and it will be hard to eliminate them entirely. But that is the objective of the current U.S. effort.
It’s also an area where there is a shared interest between the U.S. and Pakistan and between Afghanistan and Pakistan, given that all three are opposed to the Islamic State. And there has actually been some cooperation with Pakistan on this. And I think that highlights the complexity of the Pakistan element of this whole mosaic. There are areas where the U.S. and Pakistan have cooperated very closely on counterterrorism. I think it’s fair to say the U.S. would not have been able to decimate Al Qaeda in the region without cooperation with Pakistan. But, on the other hand, Pakistan does still provide safe haven for the leadership of the Afghan Taliban and is not in alignment with U.S. policy in the region.
Glasser: It’s like Groundhog Day. It’s a conversation that we could have been having, and you could have been giving almost that verbatim quote any time in the last 17 years.
Miller: Yes. Look, the Pakistanis see their interests in the region over the long term in a different way than the U.S. believes they should see their interests. And I don’t think the U.S. would succeed in compelling Pakistan to change its perception of its own interests in the region over the long term, given that it doubts the longevity of the current Afghan government, it doubts the stability of Afghanistan, it doubts the ability of the United States and the Afghan government to defeat the Taliban. And so it’s hedging.
The best way, in my view, to try to attract Pakistan to an American policy that they could more likely get behind is to put the effort to launch a peace process more at the center of American policy because that is a way that they, the Pakistanis, might be able to have their own interests satisfied. I mean, it’s a sort of oddity of Afghanistan that the strange bedfellows group of countries that includes Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, and the United States all have basically the same objective in Afghanistan of wanting a more stable Afghanistan and seeing ultimately a political solution as the only way to achieve that.
Now, it’s all for different reasons, and there would be different views on what acceptable terms of a final settlement in Afghanistan would be, but there is a sort of bizarre consensus on the basic premise of that group of countries’ interests being served more by stability than instability in Afghanistan and the necessity of a political solution.
Glasser: Yes, but dot, dot, dot, right? And the but dot, dot, dot is neither one of us can imagine President Donald Trump or even President Barack Obama, for that matter, taking the lead on something like that. It’s not something that Russia or China might agree to at this point in time, but—
Miller: It’s possible. I mean, look, that is the same group of countries that the United States collaborated with at the end of 2001, beginning of 2002, in setting up the transitional Afghan government, the interim government after the American invasion.
Glasser: In the aftermath of an extraordinarily shocking geopolitical even.
Miller: True. True. But, you know, it was also a testament to skillful diplomacy. And this is a group of countries that the United States, that U.S. diplomats talks to about Afghanistan in various formats and forums. Ultimately all these countries surrounding Afghanistan would prefer not to have U.S. bases in Afghanistan. But there is enough convergence of interests that there is a basis for diplomatic activity.
Glasser: No, but it’s hard to imagine at this point in the Trump administration them taking the course that you’re outlining, even though those conditions might be there. Do you agree with that?
Miller: Well, it depends on what they want. If the president does decide—and I don’t know whether he will or not—that he doesn’t want to just stay the course in Afghanistan for the next four years but wants to find some way to a more durable solution, then really committing to trying to launch a peace process and empowering people to do the necessary diplomacy is the way to do it. It doesn’t mean that he personally needs to be involved in that, certainly, at an early stage. But to come out strongly and clearly saying that that’s your intention would send an important signal that would be very clearly heard.
Glasser: Absolutely. We’ll see what happens, but I would still be shocked if that’s the message we hear coming out of the White House any time soon. Laurel, you have had a fascinating experience over the last couple of years. I want to finish our conversation by sort of pulling back. For you, you took on one of the hardest problems in American government, in American foreign policy. Obviously this has been going on for 17 years. What did you come out of realizing? What did you think you might be able to do? What have you learned about the tools that America has available to exercise its strategic imperatives in this complicated day and age?
Miller: I’ll say a couple things that I learned. One is that you really do have to regularly revisit why you are doing what you are doing and what your interests are, because it’s so easy to fall into kind of inertial status quo. I very distinctly remember when I first was working in the SRAP office in the middle of 2013, and there was another policy review going on, because they have been constant, you know, this sort of annual policy reviews. And it was my first interagency meeting on whatever was then the policy review that was going on. And the other people at the table had all been at this for a while. And the discussion started with, “What exactly are our vital national interests in Afghanistan?” And I thought to myself, as someone coming in from outside, from a think tank, “I’d assumed they knew that by 2013.” I was shocked. I thought, “How can these people be sitting around the table asking what are our vital national interests in Afghanistan? It’s 2013.” Here we are in 2017, and we’re asking that question again.
You do have to keep asking that question, and it’s very hard for bureaucratic institutions to ask it in the serious, blank-slate kind of way that it should be asked. And even though that question has come on the table once again, there is still a tendency to address it in a very routinized kind of way that doesn’t really step back and look at the whole picture. So that’s one thing I’ve learned and will take with me.
The other thing I would say is that my own views about the situation in Afghanistan and the path forward have changed quite a bit. When I started the job I was more skeptical of the idea of launching peace talks in Afghanistan than I am now, more skeptical of the plausibility, and, at that time, more skeptical that that was really the way forward. And I would also say, when I started the job, I bought into the often-repeated idea that the problem with the—that we undermined our own military surge in Afghanistan by announcing deadlines for withdrawal at the same time as we announced the surge. I no longer believe that that was such a consequential decision.
Glasser: How interesting. People see that as a big mistake of Obama’s.
Miller: People see it as the sort of single point of failure. People currently in the U.S. government still see that as the single point of failure. And the reason why I don’t believe that any longer is—first of all, I mean, let’s set aside what the logic of it was at the time, which it wasn’t just that Obama wanted to get out of there. The logic was you’re going to put pressure on the Afghan government to get its act together and to know it doesn’t have an American gravy train forever.
But setting that aside, first of all it’s a fallacy that the Taliban were just waiting us out. They didn’t wait us out. They fought us the whole time. So clearly they didn’t believe we were about to leave Afghanistan on any particular timetable. Secondly, it was never going to be plausible that we were going to keep 100,000 troops in Afghanistan forever. Afghans are going to be in Afghanistan forever; Americans are not going to be in Afghanistan forever. And that’s patently obvious to Afghans, to include the Taliban. And, in addition, the Taliban were always going to be more motivated than we were because the idea of foreign troops on Afghan soil is anathema to them.
Glasser: See Vietnam.
Miller: Right. It’s relevant to the point about peace process because if you look at those factors, it’s pretty hard to see a military solution to the problem in Afghanistan, no matter how much we pour into improving the technical capabilities of the Afghan government security forces, and the logic of seeking a negotiated solution to the conflict becomes more apparent. And it’s usually the case in foreign policy, I would say, as in a lot of things, that the closer you are to a problem, the more you see all the complexities and the obstacles.
It’s an interesting aspect of the effort to try to launch peace talks in Afghanistan that the small number of people who have been closest to it have become the greatest believers in the possibility of it, in part because there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that you can’t really explore and explain publicly. But I do believe that it’s not easy and it will take a long time but it is possible and it’s, to my mind, clearly in American national security interests to put that at the forefront of our policy.
Glasser: Laurel, as you said, it’s a hard thing to say the word optimist and the Afghan peace process in the same sentence, but you’ve come close. And I appreciate that as well as your time. We’re talking about America’s longest war, Afghanistan, and I think if you had told both you and I back in 2001 that we would be there 17 years later, longer, by the way, than the Soviet Union was in Afghanistan, it would have shocked us and everyone else in the United States.
I want to thank you again for joining me on The Global POLITICO this week. And thanks to all our listeners, of course. You can listen to us on iTunes or whatever is your favorite podcast platform. And of course you can always email me at any time at SGlasser@POLITICO.com. Give me feedback or ideas for more guests. And, of course, thank Laurel Miller along with me for joining us this week. Thank you, Laurel.
Miller: Thank you so much.